Boertmann, D., Blockley, D., & Mosbech, A. 2020. Greenland Sea – an updated strategic environmental impact assessment of petroleum activities Scientific Report from DCE – Danish Centre for Environment and Energy No. 375, 380 pp. dce2.au.dk/pub/SR375.pdf
This document is an updated strategic environmental impact assessment (SEIA) of activities related to exploration, development and exploitation of oil and gas in the sea off Northeast Greenland between 68° and 81° N; the Greenland Sea assessment area (Summary figure 1).
The previous version was issued in 2012 (Boertmann & Mosbech 2012), and this is now updated with new environmental information, primarily obtained during the Strategic Environmental Study Program for Northeast Greenland, carried out in the years 2016-2019.
This study program was based on the Strategic Environmental Study Plan for Northeast Greenland developed in 2013 which included the information needs identified in the previous edition of this SEIA (see Annex C). The aim of this was to provide the necessary environmental information for planning and regulating oil exploration activities and oil spill response in the western Greenland Sea. The plan included projects on marine ecology, biodiversity as well as toxicology, degradation of oil and contaminants, an oil spill sensitivity atlas, and an updated SEIA (present document). The plan focused on three key questions, which address the main environmental concerns related to oil activities in the area:
a) Planning of exploration activities so the most sensitive areas and periods are avoided.
b) Planning of oil spill preparedness and response so efficient and environmentally beneficial response options for the Greenland Sea are available and can be selected operationally using a Net Environmental Benefit Analysis (NEBA).
These key questions were then addressed by eleven interlinked themes with a number of project proposals. The study plan was presented to the licence holders of the five licence blocks, and most of the proposed studies were subsequently funded by these companies. The Strategic Environmental Study Program for Northeast Greenland studies included (the results published so far quoted in brackets):
The results of these studies are incorporated in the chapters and text boxes in this report and are presented in the above mentioned references and summarised in Annex D. These results have considerably improved the knowledge base on both ecological and oil spill issues in the assessment area.
This new version of the SEIA was prepared by the DCE – Danish Centre for Environment and Energy and the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources (GINR). It was a part of the Strategic Environmental Study Program for Northeast Greenland, funded by the Government of Greenland (Mineral Licence and Safety Authority – MLSA and the Environmental Agency for Mineral Resource Activities – EAMRA).
The assessment area is shown in Figure 1, and is the region which could potentially be impacted by oil exploration and exploitation activities within the licensing area. However, an oil spill may drift beyond the borders of this area.
Exploration activities are likely to take place during summer and early autumn, because darkness, harsh weather and particularly sea ice hamper activities in winter and spring. However, if oil production is initiated, activities will take place throughout the year.
Environmental pressures. These are the results of specific human activities in the environment. The activities can for example be hunting and fishing, shipping or mineral extraction and on a larger scale also climate change. The term ‘stressor’ is often used in this context.
Environmental impact. Or only impact is the way a specific pressure act on the environment. It is less specific than effect, and used in the sense of impact on an environmental element for example the impacts of a seismic survey on the population of narwhals. See also environmental effect.
Environmental effect. Or only effect is the result of a specific impact for example the toxic effect of a chemical in the drilling mud or the effect of noise generated by a seismic survey such as displacement or temporal hearing loss. See also environmental impact. Effects and impacts are to some extend synonyms.
Sensitive. This is an intrinsic characteristic of the ecological elements (organisms, processes – VEC’s), independent of human activities. For example narwhals are particularly sensitive to underwater noise. See also vulnerable, a term which sensitive to some degree overlaps with in meaning.
Vulnerable. This term includes the risk of being exposed to an impact, why it is a combination of being sensitive and risk of being impacted. For example, narwhals - because they are sensitive to underwater noise - will be vulnerable to a planned seismic activity. See also sensitive, a term, which vulnerable to some degree overlaps with in meaning.
Environmental risk. This describes the likelihood and consequence of an impact on the environment as a result of a human activity, for example from exploration drilling.
The physical environment of the study area is briefly described with focus on oceanography and ice conditions. Sea ice and icebergs are present throughout the year, with the lowest concentrations of sea ice in August and September. One of the most important physical features for the biological environment is the polynyas (ice-free or almost ice-free areas surrounded by sea ice). The most important polynyas are found at the entrance to Scoresby Sund, at Wollaston Forland (the Sirius Water Polynya) and at the northeast corner of Greenland (the Northeast Water Polynya), see Figure 12. These polynyas become free of ice very early in spring (April) and also have ice-free parts throughout the winter.
More detailed accounts of physical conditions in the assessment area have been issued by the Danish Meteorological Institute (DMI) in 2008 and 2011 (Hvidegaard et al. 2008, Pedersen et al. 2011).
The assessment area is situated within the Arctic, with all the typical biological properties of this climatic region: low biodiversity, with some species very abundant, and a relatively simple food web that has only a few levels from primary producers to top predators, and key species that play important roles in the ecology of the region (Figure 21).
The primary production in the assessment area is generally low, but locally there are areas with enhanced production - predominantly in the Northeast Water Polynya and probably also in the other polynyas. The 2017 studies showed that nitrate depletion occurred on the shelf in late summer, but there was a relatively high production above the shelfbreak. Previous studies have also shown relatively high production in the marginal ice zone.
The zooplankton is an important link between the primary producers and the higher levels of the food chain. The large copepods (Calanus) play a major role here. The 2017 study showed that community composition was clearly associated with the oceanography and bathymetry of the area, with the highest biomass of zooplankton over the shelfbreak where Calanus were abundant. High biomass was also found locally near the coast, and here it was dominated by larger zooplankton, such as krill. Composition of species reflected the origin of the water: the North Atlantic Calanus finmarchicus was present at all stations, but much more abundant at the stations off the shelf in the Greenland Sea. The larger Arctic Calanus species C. glacialis and C. hyberboreus, on the other hand, had the opposite patterns, and were not found at all in the upper 50 m off the shelf break. Earlier studies in the Northeast Water Polynya indicated relatively low biomass of zooplankton, and a large part of the primary production there apparently ends up in the benthos (pelagic-benthic coupling).
There is no vegetation in the tidal zone due to the impacts of sea ice. Below this zone there is a well-developed vegetation of macroalgae, which is however very heterogeneous, and determined by light, substrate and ice. If conditions are favourable, kelp can be found down to depths of 40 m, and red algae even deeper. Kelp forests were found as far north as the survey in 2017 covered (76° 45’ N). Locally, the macroalgae vegetation can be very rich in the form of kelp forests and seaweed meadows.
Benthos is the fauna living on and in the seabed. Benthic macrofauna species (molluscs, crustaceans, echinoderms etc.) are an important component of coastal ecosystems. The communities have a high biodiversity and many of the organisms are long-lived, but compared to West Greenland, biomass and abundances are low. The benthos consume a significant fraction of the available production and are in turn an important food source for fish, seabirds and mammals. Studies in 2017 (Strategic Environmental Study Program for Northeast Greenland) found rich benthic communities in coastal waters and also on the shelfbreak, where a cold-water coral community was located.
In and on the underside of the sea ice a specialised community exists, called the sympagic flora and fauna. Algae live here and are grazed upon by crustaceans, which in turn sustain populations of polar cod and Arctic cod. In other areas, the primary production in and below the sea ice varies considerably depending on sea ice diversity and longevity. The ice cover is important for spawning of polar cod, and their eggs accumulate along the underside of the ice.
Fish, seabirds, marine mammals and humans represent the higher trophic levels in the marine environment, where polar bears and humans are the top predators.
Both diversity and abundance of fish in the assessment area is low. The most important species is polar cod, which is a key species as it constitutes an important link in the food web between zooplankton, seabirds and marine mammals. It was caught on almost all trawl stations during the Strategic Environmental Study Program for Northeast Greenland in 2017, and high biomasses were found on the shelf break. The 2017 studies also revealed aggregations of lanternfish in waters more than 400 m deep. An important fish in the coastal waters is Arctic char, which spend the summer in coastal waters, and spawn and winter in many rivers.
Seabirds are an important component of the ecosystem of the assessment area, and they show wide variation in abundance within the area and throughout the year. In the breeding season (summer), they assemble in colonies along the coasts, and high numbers are found particularly at the large polynyas. This is most pronounced in the mouth of Scoresby Sund, where millions of little auks breed in numerous colonies and where two colonies of thick-billed murres are located. At the Northeast Water there are large colonies of northern fulmar, and ivory gulls have their primary breeding area in Greenland here. At the Sirius Water Polynya, kittiwakes and common eiders breed in high numbers. Some of the seabird species utilise the adjacent waters more than 100 km away from their nests. A study in 2017 and 2018 focused on the habitat use of Sabine’s gulls and ivory gulls, and showed that the Sabine’s gulls were feeding in waters close to the breeding site (30-40 km), while the ivory gulls were feeding up to 500 km away from their nests. In autumn and probably also spring, densities of seabirds on the shelf are generally low, but little auks in particular may occur in high densities where the birds moult after the breeding season. Such high density spots were frequent above the shelf break in August/September 2017. Almost all birds leave the assessment area for the winter, except for the southernmost part, where some thick-billed murres, little auks and black-legged kittiwakes spend the winter.
Thick-billed murre and black-legged kittiwake are red-listed in Greenland due to declining populations. Other red-listed (threatened or near threatened) bird species which occur in the marine part of the assessment area include Sabine’s gull, Arctic tern and light-bellied brent goose. Ivory gull is also red-listed (both nationally and internationally), mainly because of the expected reductions in its primary habitat – sea ice. The coasts of the Northeast Water is a stronghold for this species.
Marine mammals constitute the top levels in the marine food web, with seals, whales and on top of them all polar bears. They exhibit very different life strategies: ringed seals and polar bears usually stay within the assessment area year round, although especially the bears extensively use both the coasts and the ice-covered offshore areas (documented by tracked individuals in 2017-2019); narwhals perform regular migrations between distinct summer habitats in the fjordlands and winter habitats on the shelfbreak; bowhead whales perform long trips to Svalbard and further east (documented by tracked individuals in 2017-2019); harp seals and hooded seals have specific whelping grounds on the drift ice and disperse widely in the North Atlantic after the whelping season (harp seal movements documented in 2017-2018); and walrus males and females assemble on specific and segregated haul-outs on the coast. In spring large whales (fin, blue, humpback, and sperm) arrive from the south and utilise particularly the productive waters above the shelfbreak. Aerial surveys in 2017 and 2018 showed that the Northeast Water is an important habitat for the now increasing population of bowhead whale both in winter and summer; that narwhals have important summer habitats in Dove Bugt and off Jøkel Bugt; and that the walrus population may be smaller than hitherto assessed. Only five walrus haul-out sites seem to have been used regularly in recent years. Other sources have recently found a spring aggregation area for bowhead whales over the shelfbreak between 76° and 78° N. Polar bears were tracked in 2018-2019, and they used the entire shelf off Northeast Greenland extensively when covered by ice. The inshore area appears to be key habitat for adult females with young cubs (cubs of the year (COY) and yearlings). Females with new cubs (COYs) move into the offshore areas, when cubs are ready to travel on the pack ice.
Polar bear, walrus and bowhead whale are red-listed because their populations are small, declining or expected to decline because of climate change (polar bear). Blue whale is also red-listed, and the assessment area is likely a very important habitat for this species.
Human use of natural resources only occurs in the southern part of the assessment area. Subsistence hunting (marine mammals and seabirds) and fishing is carried out near the town of Ittoqqortoormiit/Scoresbysund and hunters from Tasiilaq venture as far north as the southernmost part of the assessment area to hunt narwhal (Figure 71).
Commercial fishery is limited to Greenland halibut and this takes place in offshore areas in the southern part of the assessment area. The catches are small compared to other parts of Greenland (Figure 73).
A GIS overlay analysis with multiple layers showing species and ecological elements’ spatial and temporal distribution was applied to guide the designation of particularly important biological areas (Figure 68 and Figure 69), and of areas sensitive to oil spills and disturbing activities (Figure 70).
Tourism is a growing industry in Greenland, and this is also the case in Ittoqqortoormiit/Scoresbysund, where activities take place from early spring (April) and throughout the summer. There is a local operator and a few Icelandic operators also have activities in the Ittoqqortoormiit area. Several cruise ships visit the National Park and Ittoqqortoormiit annually.
Knowledge on background levels of contaminants such as hydrocarbons, Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) and heavy metals is important in assessing environmental impacts from petroleum activities. The available knowledge on background levels of hydrocarbons in the assessment area is limited, but the general picture is that levels are low. However, ivory gulls, polar bears and killer whales (south of the assessment area) show concerning high levels of certain POPs and mercury from long-transported pollution.
The assessments presented here are based on our present knowledge concerning the distribution of species and their tolerance and threshold levels toward human activities in relation to oil exploration. However, the Arctic is changing due to climate change, and this process moreover seems to be accelerating, which means conclusions and assessments may not apply to future conditions. Furthermore, the assessment area is remote and in many ways still poorly studied, and an increase in knowledge may also contribute to future adjustments of assessments and conclusions.
Presently, we do not know much about the adaptation capacity of important species in the assessment area and how their sensitivity to human impacts might change under changing environmental conditions. Changes in habitat availability, e.g. due to reduced ice coverage, are to be expected, with consequences for the local fauna. This, as well as increased temperatures will affect the distribution patterns of relevant species, with consequences for the food web. Northward range expansion of fish targeted by commercial fisheries could for example result in increased fishing activities in the assessment area.
During exploration, the environmental impacts of most concern are underwater noise from seismic surveys, and release of drilling mud and cuttings to the seabed.
Seismic surveys have the potential to displace noise sensitive species in the assessment area. These are walrus, narwhal and bowhead whale. Depending on the extent, duration and number of the seismic surveys in the area, these species are at risk of being scared away from critical habitats with population decrease as the ultimate effect. In the Ittoqqortoormiit-area, this effect may also apply to areas where these species are hunted. In 2017 and 2018 narwhal response to seismic noise was studied in the assessment area, indicating behavioural effects of the noise. If seismic surveys are carried out in the southern part of the assessment area, there will be a risk of affecting the Greenland halibut fishery, with reduced catches for a period during and after the seismic survey because the fish are temporarily scared away.
Release of drilling mud and drill cuttings to the seabed will impact the seabed around the drill platform. The degree depends on the amounts and content of offshore chemicals. Greenlandic regulation requires the use of environmentally safe chemicals, meaning effects are expected to be low and localized, in accordance with recognized good international practice, as set out in the Mineral Resources Act of Greenland.
Exploration activities are temporary, but may be followed by development and production. If no viable finds are made, the activities will be terminated and the environmental impacts will stop, indicating that the effects will be temporary.
However, production is long-lasting with a high risk of permanent effects on the environment. The impact giving most concern will be the continuous underwater noise from offshore installations, release of produced water, emissions to the atmosphere and transport by ship and helicopters.
The continuous noise has the potential to displace narwhals, bowhead whales and walrus from critical habitats, with risk of population decrease.
The discharges, besides drilling mud and cuttings, giving most reason for environmental concern relate to produced water from production facilities. Some studies have indicated that low concentrations of oil and nutrients from produced water in the North Sea can impact fish and primary production, and there is also indications of effects on several of the other marine ecosystem components. Potential effects of produced water in the assessment area are difficult to evaluate, but for example, polar cod and especially their egg concentrations below ice could be exposed and impacted if oil from produced water accumulates in the upper waters below the ice.
Another risk is the release of non-native and invasive species from ballast water and ship hulls, a risk which will increase with increasing ship transport and sea water temperatures. It will therefore be important to implement high international standards (IMO) to mitigate this threat.
Sewage and sanitary wastewater will be released from rigs and ships. Such releases will be regulated by the OSPAR convention, indicating environmental impacts of these discharges in the assessment area will be minor, at least from a single drilling rig or production facility, but releases from many facilities and/or over long time periods could be of concern.
A producing oilfield will also emit substantial amounts of greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere. These will contribute significantly to Greenland’s greenhouse gas emissions. In a larger context, the produced oil will contribute even more greenhouse gas when it is combusted by end users. The emission of black carbon (BC) to the atmosphere from combustion of fuel oil is also of concern as BC contributes to increased snow and ice melt in the Arctic.
Installations and infrastructure (buildings, pipelines, storage areas, installations on the seabed, etc.) impact the environment by physically covering ground and seabed, with the risk of habitat loss for rare and sensitive organisms. Moreover, the presence of people may have a disturbing impact on wildlife onshore, for example the terrestrial haul-outs for walrus will be sensitive to human activity. Safety zones established around offshore installation will exclude fishery, which to date is only relevant in the southern part of the assessment area as there is no fishery in the northern part.
Facilities both on- and offshore may also impact traditional hunting grounds. This issue will be relevant to consider when planning activities in the southern part of the assessment area, near Ittoqqortoormiit and Kangerlussuaq. On shore, aesthetic impacts are also an issue to consider, especially in relation to tourist activities.
Both exploration and exploitation requires extensive transport operations. In the assessment area this will be by ship, airplane and helicopter, increasing the volume of these activities manyfold compared to the present day situation. Shipping contributes to the underwater noise and to emissions to the atmosphere and increases the risk of oil spills. Helicopter transport is noisy and has potential to disturb both marine mammals and seabirds. Some of these impacts can be mitigated by limiting sailing and flying to specific corridors and in case of helicopter to certain flight levels.
All these environmental impacts related to the normal operations can be mitigated by planning, applying ‘Best Available Techniques’ and ‘Best Environmental Practice’ and by regulation by the authorities. Such regulation is in place for exploration activities in Greenland, but as no producible oil has been located yet, no regulation to mitigate impacts from production has been implemented in Greenland.
A large oil spill from a tanker or a blowout would be the worst environmental impact from oil and gas exploration and exploitation in the assessment area. The risk of ship accidents with oil released to the sea is elevated in the assessment area due to icebergs and sea ice. The effects of a large oil spill in the area are difficult to predict, because they depend greatly on location, current weather, season and oil type, but some more general considerations can be described.
Primary production and plankton: It is not likely that primary production will be impacted significantly from even a large surface spill. But it cannot be excluded in case of a subsurface spill like the one from Deepwater Horizon. The same applies to fish eggs and larvae, except for polar cod eggs, which accumulate along the underside of the sea ice where spilled oil also tends to accumulate. The survey in August/September 2017 indicated high abundance of larvae on the northern shelf edge, but generally there is limited knowledge on the distribution of spawning polar cod.
Benthic communities: Many of the species of the benthic communities are sensitive to high oil concentrations in the water column. This is a risk mainly in shallow coastal waters, where wind and waves can cause toxic oil concentrations to reach the seabed. But subsurface spills may also impact benthic communities in deeper waters (cf. Deepwater Horizon). Rich benthic communities are found on the shelf in the assessment area and also on the shelfbreak in the form of coral gardens. In contrast, the tidal zone in large parts of the assessment area has little marine life due to the effects of the sea-ice. The benthos is important as a food resource for many species, such as walrus, bearded seal and the two eider species, which means oil contamination of benthos can cause toxic effects at the higher trophic levels.
Marine vegetation: Effects on the high Arctic marine vegetation (kelp and other macroalgae) have been documented, although the response between species and communities varies considerably.
Fish: Arctic char and other fish species that assemble in coastal waters can be exposed to oil spills, which may impact the local spawning stocks. Besides the Arctic char this also applies to capelin, which in the southern part of the assessment area spawn in the intertidal and subtidal zones.
Seabirds: There are many seabird concentrations that are vulnerable to oil spills in the assessment area, and heavy losses to the populations must be expected in case such concentrations are hit by an oil spill. The most important concentrations in the breeding season are the thick-billed murres and the little auks. The thick-billed murres are particularly vulnerable, because the local breeding population is decreasing. In autumn, little auk offshore concentrations and ivory gulls migrating over the shelf will be particularly vulnerable. In spring, concentrations of common and king eiders in the polynyas are at risk of being exposed.
Marine mammals: The whelping harp and hooded seals are among the most oil spill sensitive marine mammals in the assessment area. In the whelping areas, high numbers can be exposed to oil, and especially the hooded seal population is vulnerable because it is decreasing. The walrus is also sensitive, because many individuals potentially can be fouled by oil and their benthic feeding grounds can be impacted.
Polar bears are especially sensitive to oil spills, as oiled individuals most likely will succumb. They move over considerable distances and many may be exposed to an oil spill in the ice-covered parts of the assessment area.
The whale populations most vulnerable to oil spills in the assessment area are the narwhal and the bowhead whale. With the effects on the killer whales in Prince William Sound in mind (two local pods never recovered from the impact), there will be concern for the local populations of narwhals, if their habitats are hit by an oil spill, especially in ice-covered waters where the whales can be forced to surface in oil covered leads. Summary table 1 gives an overview of the activities and their assessed impacts.
The best way to mitigate oil spills is by prevention and mitigation. To prevent and avoid oil spill accidents from for example exploration drilling, the highest health, safety and environment (HSE) standards and technical standards (BEP and BAT) must be applied together with strict regulations by the authorities, and careful planning of the entire process.
If a spill happens, there are three overall oil spill response technologies available for combatting oil spills in the marine environment: mechanical recovery, chemical dispersion and in situ burning. All three methods have their limitations in an arctic environment with drifting ice, such as in the assessment area. Recovery of oil from a sea surface covered with more or less ice is challenging and not a realistic option for a large spill in the assessment area. Ice edges can act as barriers containing oil in thicker layers suited for burning, a method which has proved very successful in experiments but is not yet developed and implemented in full operational scale. So far, no effective response methods have been developed for recovering or removing a large oil spill from waters with dynamic drift ice.
Oil spill response is also challenged by the dark winter period, the general weather conditions and the remoteness of the assessment area. It is therefore likely that very little – if any – oil can be recovered in case of an oil spill in the ice-covered parts of the assessment area.
The potential for biodegradation in Arctic areas is generally unknown, but several factors such as low temperatures, sea ice and low nutrient amounts may limit the ability of the microbes to degrade oil. The issue was therefore studied under the Strategic Environmental Study Program for Northeast Greenland.
The study showed that there is a biodegradation potential in the water column at the shelf break if the intrinsic microbial degraders can be activated, but the degradation will be hampered by nutrient limitation. The study also showed that the intrinsic potential for oil biodegradation in the water column and sediment on the shelf was very low, even when mineral nutrients were not a limiting factor.
The study clearly showed that, in general, in situ concentrations of mineral nutrients in the Greenland Sea during autumn are strongly limiting for biodegradation of oil. This most likely applies to the entire area and for most of the year. Natural degradation of oil will thus be very limited in the water column and is not a removal process to be counted on.
With the new information summarized in this report, it is now well documented that:
In the scientific recommendations to the Government of Greenlands new oil and gas strategy, DCE and GINR prior to the present assessment recommended that the areas north of 80° N in the Greenland Sea, and in some other areas, should be closed to oil and gas exploration for the next strategy period in order to safeguard the environment (Mosbech et al. 2019). This recommendation was based on an assessment of:
With the new information summarized in this report, the recommendations for area restrictions in the Greenland Sea have been reassessed by DCE and GINR. In conclusion, the assessment area holds very important biodiversity values, and the potential environmental impact of a large oil spill in the assessment area is assessed to be significantly elevated compared to similar activities in ice-free and seasonally ice-free marine areas. It is therefore recommended by DCE and GN to consider not to open the assessment area for oil licences in this strategy period (2020-24 strategy). The assessment criteria used by DCE and GINR in this recommendation are in line with recommendations from the Norwegian Polar Institute concerning oil licensing in northern Barents Sea, the EU policy (European Parliament resolution of 16 March 2017 on an integrated European Union policy for the Arctic Link) and in Canada, the Nunavut Impact Review Board (NIRB) has recommended to prolong the 2016 moratorium on oil and gas development in Baffin Bay and Davis Strait for a decade, while it is recommended to address the risks related to large oil spills before lifting the current moratorium (see chapter 10 for specific references and quotations).
Following the recommendation above there is a need to develop effective large-scale methods for countermeasures to oil spills in dynamic drift ice. Drift ice occurs in the northern part of the assessment area year round and in the southern part at least in winter and spring. No methods for large-scale countermeasures to spilled oil in drift ice have yet been proven effective, and it is recommended that exploration drilling and production of oil should not be initiated before such methods are developed.